writeup by Tom Hallman, Jr.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Oregonian

ALBANY -- A BLANKET OF IVY HIDES ONE SIDE OF THE 100-YEAR-OLD HOUSE FROM ALBANY'S OLD DOWNTOWN. Peeling stucco on one corner reveals a crumbling foundation. Sheets of plastic and old curtains block the windows, some shaped like keyholes. From the street, the place looks abandoned.

The only way into the house is through the back door, where a doorbell produces alien tones that summon the man of the house. With a great flourish, JERRY ANDRUS waves his arms toward the dark unheated interior.

"Welcome," the 87-year-old says in a gravelly voice, "to the CASTLE of CHAOS."

The man one of the world's best-known magicians called "the Thomas Edison of magic" has been up since dawn, puttering around the workshop he set up decades ago. The room is jammed floor to 10-foot ceiling with tools, electronic equipment, cords, switches, pieces of metal and gizmos that look as if they're from the set of a 1950s science-fiction movie.

No more than three people can fit in what once was the dining room of the house Andrus has lived in since childhood. Even then, they must walk single file along a 2-foot-wide trail worn into the hardwood floor. The path ends in a small clearing surrounded by mountains of debris. Buried somewhere is a manual typewriter Andrus last saw about 1970. Years ago, junk filled the living room of the house and blocked the front door, which hasn't been opened since the Kennedy administration.

Like a CD player on random shuffle, his mind bounces from one subject to the next. He makes up words and nonexistent medical conditions, writes them down and files them -- he has more than 79 pages' worth so far. But mostly he obsesses about inventions, magic tricks, illusions, songs, poetry, prose and above all, the complex nature of the human mind and the ways he can fool it.

Trying to explain him to the uninitiated is like trying to describe the color blue.

He never attended college. Yet he's lectured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and Stanford. He's most comfortable in his workshop. Yet he's performed across the United States as well as in England, Spain, Chile, Germany, Japan, Finland, Belgium, France, Holland and Denmark.

For the past 30 years, Andrus has recorded his thoughts, sometimes minute by minute, on a tape player he carries in his pocket, and the total now amounts to more than 2 million words, many collected in four thick volumes titled "Some of the Scribulations of Jerry Andrus." He printed them on the press he used to keep upstairs, in his bedroom. The remainder are on the laptop he bolted to a treadmill in the middle of his kitchen. Andrus wraps a thick fabric belt around his middle to steady himself, turns on the treadmill and walks at a fair clip while pecking at the keyboard.


Andrus steps over the treadmill and leads the way to his workshop. With his thick white wavy hair and metal-framed glasses that make his brown eyes appear large and intense, Andrus looks like what you might imagine when you think of an inventor working out of his house. He wears brown pants and a long-sleeve white shirt with four pens in the front pocket. His 1980s digital watch includes a 20-button calculator. "I haven't used the calculator in years," he says. "Somewhere around here, I have the owner's manual."

He worked as a lineman for a power company and retired at 53. A lifelong bachelor, he's devoted himself to creating and inventing. He can't leave well enough alone. Using his thumbs just to hit the space bar on his computer seemed inefficient. So Andrus rigged up separate keys that allow his thumbs to capitalize letters and make changes to the computer's programs.

He tore apart his lawn mower, moved the motor and installed a small bike wheel on the front and two more on the back so he could easily maneuver around trees. He devised a welder's helmet with a series of levers that allowed the operator to raise and lower the protective lenses by opening and closing his mouth.

On one wall in his workshop is a massive electric organ Andrus built from a kit. He outfitted it with dozens of switches and levers that allow him to play with his fingers, elbows and knees. He also installed an electric eye so he could play by moving his body through the beam.


Andrus rummages under a table, looking for one of his optical illusions. He can't find it, of course. So he opens a battered briefcase and brings out a deck of cards. He shuffles while explaining that when he got out of the Army after World War II he wanted to join the Portland Society of Magicians. "To be admitted," he says, "I had to have a trick. I was shy and uncomfortable on the stage. I had three minutes with a 50-cent piece. Halfway through, I dropped the coin. I picked it up but was too embarrassed to proceed. A year later, I came back and did OK."

Andrus watched magicians perform card tricks, and he eventually learned the shuffles and sleights of hand passed down through generations. But Andrus, always tinkering, set out to invent new card manipulations. And then -- no longer the shy man on stage -- he began performing.

"I was at a convention," he says. "All the best magicians were there, and I did a trick. The effect is where the cards are all mixed up, some face up, others face down. Typically, you do a slop shuffle, talking and misdirecting and then spread the cards out, and they are all face up. I did it but with no pass, no slop shuffle or misdirection. They were floored."

Rick Killion, a California magician, says Andrus' sleight of hand is "from another planet."

"He can make cards do what no one else can," Killion says. "He'll put four aces in the deck upside down, and they appear on top, right-side up without the standard shuffle. He can make an entire deck vanish. He fools other magicians."

Andrus is the most senior member of the Magic Castle, a private club for magicians in Hollywood. - - http://www.magiccastle.com. A couple of times a year, Milt Larson, the owner, brings Andrus down to perform close-up magic and illusions. "He's an absolute genius," Larson says. "People consider him the last of the living legends. Most tricks are based on old principles. He does things that are difficult to explain. You've got to see them. He pulled off an optical illusion where a giant mask that was on the stage suddenly appeared over the audience and scared the hell out of everyone."


Jerry Andrus shoves the deck of cards back into his briefcase and sets it on the workshop floor. He roots around the room, looking for one of his optical illusions. He pulls out a massive wheel with a three-dimensional spiral he created on a metal lathe. He spins the wheel, telling a visitor to stare at the center and then quickly turn and look at a photograph on the back wall. The images undulate.

"I'm fascinated by the way the human mind works," he says. "The mind is the most intelligent thing in the universe. The reason we can fool it is because we're on autopilot."

A book of his illusions was published in Japan. Others have been featured in science magazines. In past years, he's lectured at colleges as well as at the Hewlett-Packard research lab in San Jose, Calif. His subject was the mind, vision and the way the brain functions. His audiences were made up of experts studying cognitive science -- how humans think. "Optical illusions violate the way the world works," he says. "In an optical illusion, the eye tells you one thing and the brain tells you another."

He pulls out other illusions he invented and explains them, one by one. Finally, he packs them away and leans back in his chair. He holds out his right hand. His thumb trembles. "Don't know how much longer I'll be able to do this," he says. "That tremor isn't going away. And my memory isn't as good as it used to be."

He glances around his beloved workshop.

"I've never thrown anything out," he says. "I got that tripod over there for next to nothing. Never know when I might need it."

He pulls a deck of cards out of his battered briefcase. He shuffles in silence, lost in thought.

"When I die," he finally says, "all this will be hauled off to the dump."

He wipes his eyes. A cold, he says as he briefly turns away, just a cold. He clears his throat and holds out the deck.

"Take a card," he says. "Please, take a card."